SAN DIEGO — A judge tentatively approved a settlement to give owners of Honda Civic hybrids up to $200 cash over claims that the cars’ fuel economy was inflated, casting aside arguments that a motorist’s victory in small claims court entitled them to a larger award.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor said the essence of a settlement is compromise.
“No doubt plaintiffs would have loved to have gotten more; certainly their counsel had every incentive to get as much as possible. … Honda undoubtedly has many arrows left in its quiver, and certainly would have preferred to pay nothing,” he wrote.
The judge gave no signs of reconsidering after opponents voiced objections one last time in his courtroom Friday. He gave no timetable for a final ruling.
The case gained widespread attention after a Los Angeles woman won a $9,867 judgment against Honda in small claims court last month, a ruling that the carmaker vowed to appeal. Heather Peters opted out of the class action so she could try to claim a larger damage award for her 2006 Civic’s failure to deliver the 50 mpg that was promised.
The judge said Peters’ victory carries little weight.
Peters, who recently reinstated her law license, said Friday that she was disappointed but not surprised. Taylor got testy with her when she tried to address him at a hearing last month, saying he had not yet received confirmation that her license was renewed. His patience wore thin when California and four other states briefly considered objecting to the settlement after Peters’ victory.
The judge was visibly irritated with Peters again Friday when she complained about difficulty reviewing documents under the court’s paper filing system.
“Do you really want me to get into that, Ms. Peters?” he asked.
Peters told reporters after the hearing that she was focused on arguing Honda’s appeal of her small-claims award April 13.
“I’m certainly disappointed but we’re proud to have stood up,” she said.
The settlement pays owners of about 200,000 Honda Civics spanning from model years 2003 to 2009 between $100 and $200, plus a rebate toward the purchase of a new Honda. Owners of models 2006 to 2008 get the larger amount due to additional claims over battery defects.
The judge has valued the settlement at $170 million. The plaintiff attorneys have pegged the value between $87.5 million and $461.3 million, depending largely on how many people accept rebates of up to $1,500.
The judge also approved more than $8 million in plaintiff attorney fees in his 29-page tentative ruling issued Thursday.
More than 1,700 Honda owners opted out of the settlement. Some believed consumers should be paid more. Some complained that the attorney fees were too high.
Kathy Proya, of Toronto, Ohio, called the settlement a “travesty of justice,” saying it enriches lawyers while only covering a fraction of the loss from the 208,000 miles she logged on her 2005 Civic. Christian Matthews, of El Cerrito, Calif., equated Honda Motor Co. to “a con man, swindler or a thief.”
Still, the judge noted, many objectors were sympathetic to the automaker. Clancy Hughes, a physician in Homer, Alaska, said he was a satisfied customer and that the claims “seem spurious.”
American Honda Motor Co., the Japanese automaker’s U.S. subsidiary, can back out of the agreement if more than 1,500 owners opt out, but it has given no indication that it will.
Chris Martin, a Honda spokesman, said Friday that the settlement is a “very good resolution.”
“We think the hearing went well. Certainly based on the temporary ruling, we’re pleased things seem to be approaching a final settlement,” he said.